Laguna Woods hotel backs out of plans to host COVID-19 shelter after backlash from neighboring retirement community

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Following backlash from a neighboring retirement community, a Laguna Woods hotel will no longer host a shelter for the homeless amid the COVID-19 pandemic, county officials said Monday.

Ayres Hotel Laguna Woods, a 138-bed property located at 24341 El Toro Road, pulled out of an agreement with the County of Orange days after protests staged outside the retirement community of Laguna Woods Village.

“On Sunday, we were contacted by the Ayres Hotel, and they respectfully asked to be released,” said Lisa Bartlett, O.C. supervisor for the fifth district, which includes Laguna Woods. “I assume it’s related to the community concerns that were expressed.”

The hotel did not immediately return a request for comment.

Also on Monday, county health officials reported another 51 cases of COVID-19. A total of 14 people countywide have died of the virus. Meanwhile, 72 patients remain hospitalized in the intensive care unit, according to O.C. Health Care Agency.

Laguna Woods Village filed a civil complaint in Orange County Superior Court Monday seeking an injunction that would put a halt to the shelter plans, according to the facility’s website.

“The concern was just putting the virus right there in the community,” said Eileen Paulin, a spokeswoman for the retirement community, where the average age of residents is 76.

Paulin said the neighborhoods of sprawling Laguna Woods Village are located close to the Ayres Hotel, and the hotel is just a few hundred yards from the community center that serves all 18,800 residents of the retirement community.

At least 300 residents protested the shelter plans on Saturday and Sunday, honking horns while driving cars and golf carts, Paulin said. Many were worried those housed and treated at the Ayres Hotel may spread the virus — the hotel was supposed to shelter homeless individuals infected with COVID-19 or who are high-risk because of their age or health. A nonprofit called Illumination Foundation would have provided medical care, security and on-site meals at the hotel, county officials said.

But Ayres Hotel leadership reached out to the retirement community over the weekend, and by Monday, made their own decision to pull out of the shelter plans, according to Paulin.

The Ayres Hotel would have been one of the first to join California’s “Project Roomkey,” an initiative in which state officials are working with counties to secure motels and hotels to house the homeless.

“Without a hotel or motel to house and isolate this population, it exposes the entire community to an increase risk of contact and fewer beds at our local hospitals,” Bartlett said Monday after announcing the Ayres Hotel had pulled out.

According to Bartlett, the county’s emergency operations center (EOC) made the decision to enter into an agreement with the Ayres Hotel. Laguna Woods city officials and the retirement community both expressed outrage over being left out of the decision-making process.

Last week, Laguna Woods Mayor Noel Hatch said in a statement “the city is deeply concerned” that COVID-19 patients would be placed “right in the middle of the most concentrated community of older adults in Orange County.”

Bartlett defended the county’s actions by saying “EOC is there to make the hard decisions quickly while taking those decisions out of the political process.”

“That’s the way decisions in an emergency should be done,” Barlett said.

Meanwhile, county officials said they are working to lease three other sites within the next two weeks to start housing homeless populations especially vulnerable to the virus.

Like with the Ayres Hotel, the buildings would operate as shelters where Illumination Foundation would provide medical care and food to residents. No walk-ups will be allowed at the facilities, and people can only enter or leave through transportation provided by Illumination Foundation, according to county officials.

Paulin said the retirement community recognizes the importance of such efforts but that doesn’t change what kind of impact such a neighboring shelter could have on Laguna Woods Village.

“It’s a sensitive subject because it isn’t that people don’t care about the transient community,” Paulin said. “It’s just the choice of location was just so poor.”

In total, 882 cases of COVID-19 have surfaced in Orange County as of Monday afternoon and at least 10,489 people have been tested, according to health officials.

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